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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La peur comme fondement d’un pouvoir autoritaire et répressif


Fear as the Foundation of an Authoritarian and Repressive Power

Translated Sunday 17 October 2010, by Jonathan Pierrel and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Are today’s citizens ready to trade their security against their liberty?

Thomas Hobbes, a British philosopher of the seventeenth century, was the first person to theorize insecurity, which he put as the heart of power relations. In his work, insecurity is shaped as “a war of all against all.” This war does not refer only to civil wars, or to chaos, which would proceed to the establishment of a constitutional state. One can remember appalling images of the starving Iraqi population, looting hospitals and schools during the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime; or, more recently, crimes committed during the elections in Afghanistan.

Violence refers first to the state of insecurity that constitutes a constant war in any civilized State. To illustrate the idea that insecurity is part of our everyday life, Hobbes uses the example of a traveler who is about to leave his home. That person will never forget to lock his place, because he knows that there is an ongoing war waged between the robbed and the robbers, and that once he has left, his neighbor will be able to plunder his possessions. It is not battle fields, corpses, or physical violence that characterize war or insecurity, but fear.

Fear is primarily a system of representations. Terrorism, crime, lack of security, pandemic diseases… Today, fear is our primary lens for looking at the world. Whether this fear is based on reality or not, as long as our system of representations includes the possibility of violence, this possibility will determine our behavior and will provide insecurity as a reality. The French government works towards the creation of this possibility by pointing out enemies against whom the population should join forces (against (H1N1 virus, polygamists, drug users, etc.), thus shaping our world as a system of exceptions. Because insecurity has a role at two different levels: not only do I dread it as a threat to my being, but my being as an individual is always also a threat to the social order itself. That is why, according to Hobbes, there is on ongoing war between the government and the population, which requires an authoritative, repressive power.

Christopher Nolan’s movie, Batman the Dark Knight, illustrates the irrational dimension of fear. It shows that one should not be afraid of professional criminals. They act rationally and find a certain interest in the preservation of order and institutions (the bank system for example) which are necessary to carry their business through, even if it is illegal. “War is bad for business,” said Francis Ford Coppola’s godfather. This may also be the reason why a segment of the French right wing has decided to break apart from a government always ready to wage wars. Those who are to be feared are ordinary citizens who, under the effect of passion (fear, suffering, revenge, resentment, or even indifference), because they would then have the illusion to save their lives, are capable of doing the worst. If they cross this fragile line that separates the good from the bad, the acceptable from the unacceptable, then there will no longer be possible a human society. Today, it is highly tempting to cross that line.

It is for this reason, to preserve part of themselves, that Hobbes’s citizens see themselves in the necessity to understand that their interest resides primarily in security, that life and obedience are preferable to death. They would choose to offer themselves to an absolute monarch whose function would be to guarantee it, whatever the cost may be. They would renounce their rights, and notably to the right to decide for themselves. It seems that the French president has deep admiration for Hobbes’s writings.

But times have changed a great deal since then. Citizens today are no longer ready to pay their liberty as the cost for their security. Security that is often put side by side with the word “tranquility,” as if the word “security” itself aroused suspicion and is no longer as reassuring. For lack of results regarding economic and social matters, the French government builds its policies that concentrate on law and order to demonstrate its utility by its presence on the field, as well as its improbable effectiveness.

This summer, something happened. Suddenly, in an inexplicable way, the xenophobic discourse of the presidency and of representative of the government majority has reached their limits. The French people, which up to now remained indifferent to the fate of undocumented people, to the stigmatization of immigrants’ children, seems to have waken up when shaken by the fate of the Roma. One can only think about Jose Saramago’s novel, Seeing, a magnificent reflection on the meaning and the function of politics. Is the French people on its way to seeing?

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